Scaffold the writing process with the digital writer’s notebook

I detail other similar strategies for responding to student writing in a short guide called Simplify Feedback. Get it here.

Too many papers to read, too many individual needs, too little time.

This is the life of the English teacher. With 100+ students and 100+ individual needs, the situation seems dire.  Teachers see two solutions, on opposite ends of a spectrum, as a way to solve the problem and improve student writing.  You can either  spend hours responding to individual papers, or, scan the papers, identify trends in student writing and address those through mini-lessons.  Both options work, but both make some sacrifices.

Either sacrifice your energy and risk burning out, or sacrifice the learning of all the students who don’t need your mini-lesson.

Both of these approaches can be made more manageable, but lately the option that’s worked best to improve my students’ writing is “the digital writer’s notebook.”

The “digital writer’s notebook” is a simple, two-tool system:

  • Students write several drafts in the same genre of writing in a single Google Doc
  • The teacher uses Kaizena to give consistent but short feedback on these drafts until students eventually create a final draft

So, there’s no spending hours on a single class-stack of papers, and no making broad generalizations about the writing needs of a whole class in order to save time.

In my freshmen academic class, which is largely reading and writing workshop based, students are required to meet weekly word count goals as they explore writing in a specific genre (expository, persuasive, descriptive etc). They write several different drafts in the same genre of writing, or complete parts of one larger piece, step-by-step.

For example, this year my freshmen students have:

  • Written 250 words per week on an expository essay, leading up to one final draft
  • Written three persuasive complaint letters, each at least 350 words in length. Each one was addressed to a different recipient. At the end of the unit, students revised one and sent the letter to the person or organization who needed to read it
  • Written three descriptive writing scenes, each at least 500 words in length. One was inspired by a photo from The New York Times 2014 photos of the year, one was a personal memory, and one was a fictional scene created by the students. Students will revise one and display it with an accompanying visual (photo, drawing, etc)

One important aspect is that all of the writing for the unit goes in one Google Doc. Doing this makes seeing progress and improvement faster and easier for the teacher and students, and it allows students to use the feedback they’ve received on a previous draft to help them writing an upcoming draft.  Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey have referred to this use of formative assessment for future learning as “feed forward.”  This repeated practice in a single genre, combined with the use of Kaizena to give specific, actionable, feedback, has allowed me to scaffold the growth of student writing from the beginning of the year to now.  The students have developed stamina and confidence in their writing, and I’ve been able to provide them a manageable amount of feedback in a way that puts the students in charge of improving their writing.

The Fine Print

In the interest of not making things sound too automatic and magical, here are the issues that may arise with this “Digital Writer’s Notebook” concept:

  1. If students don’t complete the weekly word requirements, then they fall behind quickly, because other students have received feedback and are working on revising and writing their new drafts, while these students have little to nothing written yet, and therefore little for the teacher to provide feedback on.
  2. There is a learning curve with Kaizena, the Google Doc add-on used to provide feedback. With my classes, I’ve taken time to demonstrate to students how they can get my feedback, and some students have required individual help when they struggle to find where to get their comments.  I don’t use Kaizena for technology’s sake, but at a few moments it has felt like I’m teaching technology instead of writing.  Once studnets get the hang of it, though, there’s no need for more tech instruction.
  3. Students might put more work into some drafts than they do on others, knowing that they’ll choose one to revise.  This is bound to happen. Still, more writing practice is better than less.

That said, here’s the story…

Start with “easy wins”

In the beginning of the year, the writing requirements were small–much less than what most students could do comfortably.  This was by design.  They were asked to write 250 words per week in their Google Doc, and they could include anything that they’d written in their “real” writer’s notebooks, quick writes, brainstorming, notes taken during researching their topic, anything.  This made meeting the 250 word goal easy for nearly all students.

By starting with “easy wins” for the students, they developed momentum and confidence in their writing.  They realized that they can write 250 words in a sitting with ease, so as the word count requirements gradually increased–doubling, tripling, and eventually quadrupling–the students rise to the challenge because they’re used to meeting the requirements.

Google Docs make this process practical for me and the students. They can see their progress by viewing the changes by the time date feature.  I get a quick reference to track student progress, even sometimes checking how much a student has written within a specific class period dedicated to drafting.  This feature is also useful for checking students’ meeting of due dates and for assigning credit to students for work completed.

Students are often pleasantly surprised when they find out that they can check out the previous changes they’ve made to their document by clicking on the “All changes saved in Drive” link at the top of their document, which brings up their Revision history.  They see their color-coded changes with timestamps like these:

Reviewing revision history in Google Docs is a great tool for conferences, as it is an undeniable record of what changes students have or have not made.  Simple questions like, “Why did you decide to replace/add/delete/reorder this?” are made more concrete when students can see the color-coded changes that they’ve made to their writing.  I also get insight as to when students receive feedback, but ignore it.

Why Word Counts?

Providing students with specific word count goals has been one of the most important features of scaffolding student writing growth with the digital writer’s notebook throughout the school year.  Word counts eliminate a lot of the gaming that students may try to do with writing assignments.  No finagling font sizes, no slowly creeping in the margins, and no changing the periods to a larger font size (The last technique is clever, but still dishonest).

First drafts are for addition, second drafts are for subtraction.

Word counts give the students a concrete goal to shoot for, and gets them used to elaborating on their ideas and developing stamina.  At 450 words but shooting for 500?  Figure out how to fully explain that idea from paragraph three. First drafts are about addition, second drafts are about subtraction.

Following this maxim, students are provided with word counts for the first drafts, but on final drafts I leave with them with the words of Kelly Gallagher’s response to the student question, “how long should this essay be?” This is roughly paraphrased from Teaching Adolescent Writers.

It goes something like,

KG: “How long is a piece of string?”

Student: “As long as you decide to cut it?”

KG: “Exactly.”

So, word counts place a sort of maturity and authenticity to the students writing assignments.

Support along the Way

As students are making word count progress on a single long piece or multiple drafts in the same genre, I use Kaizena to give short, focused and actionable feedback.

The resources feature of Kaizena acts as a force multiplier of my time and hopefully of student learning, as I am able to quickly share a website or video with students that they can read on their own time, learn from and apply to their writing in several places.  This doesn’t always happen, but when it works out, it works out beautifully as students are leading their learning far more than if they were simply retyping an essay by fixing the spelling errors I’ve identified.

Overall, this practice of having students complete word count progress during writing units in a single Google Doc and providing feedback along the way with Kaizena allows me to:

  • Identify trends in student writing that mini-lessons can address, but not relying on this as the only way of providing instruction
  • Give students responsibility to evaluate their own writing, notice other areas for improvement based on comments I’ve give them
  • Make revision manageable for students, and make providing feedback manageable for me

Basically, the digital writer’s notebook is a paperless way to have students practice writing a lot, get some feedback, and make consistent progress throughout the school year.

What ways have you found to simplify the writing progress?  Do you use any systems to put students in charge of their learning and improvement?  Share your ideas below.

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6 thoughts on “Scaffold the writing process with the digital writer’s notebook

  1. Since my students use iPads, Kaizena doesn’t seem like a good option. Any other ideas for similar feedback without that app?


      Thanks for bringing up that good point, and yes I do have another idea…

      Use the voice memo app, native to Apple iOS to record comments on student work. Have the students write their email at the top of the work, then when you review their work you can record a voice comment on the iPad, and email it to the student.

      I use that method intermittently along with Kaizena.

      Does that sound like something that would work for you?

      • Good idea. I might try the same but using Google Classroom rather than email. Seems cleaner/less work. Do you find the comments on google drive aren’t enough and your voice adds that much?

        • Yes and with Google Classroom I would agree that it is less work than using email.

          I do find that voice comments get better results than written comments in some cases.

          Also, I notice that I give a balance of praise and constructive criticism with voice comments, because it feels more effortless.

          Lastly, I find the process of reading and leaving voice comments more enjoyable, which means I’ll put a better effort into it.

          That is a great question and I don’t think my answer is a universal truth, so please try it out and let me know how it goes.



  2. I wonder if you could help me with a few logistical questions that I’m not understanding:

    -Do students share their Google Doc with you and you do all the commenting using the Kaizena mini player, or do you run everything through the Kaizena Website. I thought you had to go through the Kaizena website to add classes and conversations.
    -If students share their doc with you do you have them label it Digital Writers Workbook, is that where they do all of their writing for the semester? How do you keep track of drafts, workflow etc.?
    -How do you use rubrics in this model?



      Hey Mike,

      Thanks for the questions. I’ll do my best to answer here…

      I share the Google Doc with students using Doctopus or Google Classroom. This means that I can create the documents and manage the workflow, instead of having students create their own docs. Here’s a link to how I use Doctopus to manage student documents:

      Then, I use the Kaizena mini player to give feedback. When Kaizena first started I was using their website, but the mini player just works better for me.

      The answer for the second question is also Doctopus or Google Classroom. These tools let the teacher create the document and push it out to students, instead of having students create the document and share it with the teacher. You could also have students submit links to their documents through Google Forms, an explanation of which is also in the link above.

      I’m moving to a standards-based grading system with some of my classes, but I’ve used this model of having students help create rubrics based on our reading and discussion of mentor texts:

      This gives students ownership of the assessment and revision process, and also makes them very aware of how they are being assessed.

      Hopefully some of these links will be of help to you. Thanks again for the questions!

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